Batman and Japan: In a new book

December 10, 2008 9:49:05 AM PST
Things always get more interesting when you mix heritages, traditions and sensibilities. Think fusion cuisine or world music - or, for that matter, Barack Obama.

That blending is what infuses such fascination into "Bat-Manga!" - designer Kidd's gorgeous examination of the odd collision between American comic-book superheroes and Japanese manga that took place in Japan in 1966 and 1967, the heyday of the Batman-as-high-camp period in the United States. It's as if someone threw a couple DC Comics issues, a few Godzilla sequels and some "Speed Racer" episodes into a blender and pressed frappe.

Kidd, a veteran of graphic Batman books, offers his usual dead-on collage sensibility. He builds a book that combines actual comics written and drawn by manga artist Jiro Kuwata with images of marketing, licensed character products and ephemera. The book is translated for the first time, and there are illustrations in enough abundance to get a wonderful sense of how the stories unfold. The resulting package conveys not only a feel of how the Japanese Batman stories were told but what it was actually like to be a kid in Japan reading them in the 1960s.

Though the drawings are reminiscent of DC's Batman of the 1950s and '60s, and certainly evoke the kitsch of Adam West's Caped Crusader at times, there is a darkness about them that lurks beneath the stories. As with much postwar Japanese popular art, a nuclear weirdness percolates.

One villain, for example, "Crazy Dr. Denton," looks like an evil, disfigured Beavis, sans Butt-head, and is far more unsettling than Batman foes such as the Joker and Two-Face as they were rendered in the '60s. Another, "Lord Death Man," in a full-body skeleton costume with decaying skull, evokes an early Ghost Rider but without the redeeming qualities that accompany that later Marvel character's mission of vengeance.

Various phantasmagorical creatures abound, too, in the Japanese monster-movie tradition, and you'll occasionally see lines such as this one from Robin: "Batman! He's a pterodactyl again!"

DC's "Batman" has always been a darker superhero, born not of unearthly powers but of tragedy - his parents' violent deaths when he was a boy. Seen through the prism of Japanese sensibilities, Batman becomes a hero as deeply weird and creaturous as the enemies he battles, even as he projects the sensibilities of a good guy. This approach manages to be true to Bob Kane's original Bat-Man while taking on a distinctively Japanese flavor recognizable in everything from the old "Ultraman" TV show to today's "Yu-Gi-Oh!" game cards and accompanying stories.

Granted, $60 is a high price for a glorified comic book, particularly in the current economy. But as with all of Kidd's work, this is as much a cultural document as a showpiece, and its boundaries reach far beyond the worlds of manga and comic-book fandom. Not that those worlds aren't worthwhile in themselves.


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